Home / Opinion / Columns /  Post-college dissonance and disguised unemployment

About a fortnight ago, the American job site Ziprecuiter.com published the findings of its latest survey of college graduates who intend to look for a new job in the next six months (bit.ly/3UYNilm). A key question in the study probed whether respondents regretted the specializations they had chosen in college.

Journalism, sociology, liberal arts and general studies, and communications topped the list of the most regretted college majors. As much as 87% of those who had got a degree in journalism said that if they could go back in space and time, they would choose a different stream. The figures for unhappy students of sociology, liberal arts and general studies, and communications were 72%, 72% and 64% respectively.

Graduates most satisfied with what they had studied in college were those who had done computer and information sciences (72%), criminology (72%), engineering (71%) and nursing (69%). This is, of course, an American poll, but the findings could be relevant to India too. The conclusions clearly indicate some universal economic realities. The men and women happiest with their degrees are the ones whose jobs pay the most. The top 10 list of least-regretted college majors is completed by health, business management, finance, psychology, construction trades and human resource management. In contrast, the most-regretted list is heavily skewed towards the humanities: education, political science, English literature and so on.

Computer scientists, engineers and MBAs have far better job and earning prospects compared with journalism, sociology or English majors, notwithstanding the latest round of layoffs in Big Tech companies like Meta, Amazon and Google. Most humanities graduates, unless they choose to pursue a career in academia, possibly end up in professions that do not have a very strong connection with their degrees. After all, how much does a grounding in philosophy help you in an advertising or banking job?

There is also the matter of return on investment. In the last few decades, India has seen the emergence of quite a few private universities focusing on the liberal arts. They are also highly expensive—academic fees and hostel expenses could go up to 15 lakh a year. Yet, it is unlikely that a humanities graduate from these schools would start her career with a salary of more than 5 lakh per annum. This is not a great investment from a financial point of view.

Most of these students come from well-off families. Many of their parents may also have been subject to the general Indian middle class tendency of being pushed into becoming engineers or chartered accountants by parental pressure. I know dozens of alumni of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other elite engineering institutes who want their children to be free from such stress and in fact encourage them to study the humanities. It is a common refrain among these people that one of the flaws in their education was that they were not exposed adequately to the liberal arts.

But a liberal arts degree on its own may not pay well. And the young people in this family income bracket have been largely cushioned from any economic stress. Many of them do not feel the pressure that earlier generations felt at their age to succeed financially. It is not uncommon to hear affluent parents of Gen Z-ers complaining that their progeny do not seem to be interested in a “regular career" with a stable income. As they try to find their groove in life—vlogger, stand-up comedian, bakery owner—they stay financially supported by their parents, some of whom suffer from a vague guilt that they did not give enough time and attention to their children when they needed it. The result: while expensively educated kids have a lot of free time, the parents are very busy trying to earn money.

Lower down the family wealth scale, we see an explosion in the number of PhD admissions in universities across the country. According to the Indian ministry of education’s latest All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), PhD enrolments increased more than 60% between 2015-16 and 2019-20, from 126,315 to 202,449 (bit.ly/3VkknYJ). Of these, about 42,000 researchers were working in fields of liberal arts, from philosophy and religious studies to various foreign languages and music.

But how many of these doctoral candidates are pursuing true and useful scholarship? How many are in it because they could not secure a job and find the monthly PhD stipend a comfortable means of sustenance while they look for real employment or prepare for the civil service examinations? According to the salary research website Ambitionbox.com, the annual PhD wage in India ranges between 0.3 lakh and 10.7 lakh, with an average of 4.1 lakh.

Do we need 825 people pursuing doctorates in the fine arts, as reported by the AISHE? How many of the 2,378 people enrolled for a doctorate in political science can our colleges and think-tanks accommodate? And what is the quality of research being carried out? Is this a case of what economists call “disguised unemployment"?

The unavoidable truth is that the world sees more economic value in yet another mobile phone game than some pathbreaking work of historical analysis. And it is sad to see so many college graduates confused or unsure about their future and regretting what they chose to study and devoted three years or more of their lives to.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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